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  • Writer's pictureSarina Harper

Adventures Around Northern Thailand ↣ Part 2

Updated: Apr 7, 2020

Part 2: Chiang Mai ↣ Pang Mapha

When planning my first time in Thailand, what fascinated me the most was the northern part of the country, specifically the northwest which borders Myanmar. Not only is the northwest steeping in rich southeast Asian history - it’s also a stunning and complex landscape, some of which remains relatively undeveloped and ripe for exploration. After reading a book about the hill tribes of northern Thailand, my interest increased even more. Thousands of people, whose ancestors settled from Myanmar, China, Laos and beyond, still live within these hills. They make a living from selling their crops, services and crafts. While some communities have adapted modern conveniences such as cell phones, scooters and electricity, many still wore traditional dress, practiced ancient customs and only spoke their tribe’s dialect. I was eager to learn more about their daily lives and how these locals made their homes in the jungle. I was curious how they lived off the land and how they’ve adapted to the modern world. After researching the Mae Hong Son and Chiang Mai Provinces, I narrowed down the general areas I wanted to visit and excitedly mapped a route for our adventure!

Part of our route was along the Mae Hong Son Loop, which runs around the northwestern part of the country. It’s one of the most thrilling roads in the world - 1864 hairpin turns that wind through stunning jungle covered mountains - though not for the easily nauseated! We left Chiang Mai, quickly climbing through the mountains, the scenery greener and denser with every mile we traveled. Every sharp turn yielded scenery that grew more spectacular. The thick jungle lining the narrow road opened up for glimpses of impossibly green rice terraces. Climbing higher and higher, the turns somehow getting sharper, breathtaking views of endless rolling green hills rewarded us, making it worth the stomach churning ride. Finally, we reached our first destination: Pang Mapha.

Also known as Soppong, the village is home to about 300 homes, with 40% of its population hill tribes, the rest mostly Burmese Shan. We stayed just outside Soppong in a tiny village called Tham Lod. One of only two places to stay in the village, we opted for Pen Cave for a local and authentic experience.

The home stay was surrounded by beautiful gardens filled with cheery hibiscus flowers and banana trees. Every morning roosters woke us up and the owners friendly dog greeted us as we stepped out into the cool mountain air of the morning. The accommodations were basic, but the hut was very comfortable - despite nightly visitors of big black spiders and scorpions (I was very glad Adam was there to usher them back outside)! The owner made us scrumptious home cooked meals the 5 days we stayed using fresh ingredients from her own garden.

One of the biggest draws to the Mae Hong Son Province is the massive limestone cave system - over 200! - many of which can be explored thoroughly. Some still have ancient coffins inside dating back to 1700 years ago! The first night we set off to explore a local cave, Tham Lod, and to witness the nightly performance of 300,000 swifts flocking into the cave for the evening. A local woman, who must have been in her 70s, took us into the darkness, a gas lantern providing just enough light.

Silence enveloped the three of us. Cartoonish shadows from the lantern danced on the stalagmites and stalactites around us, and the only sound we heard was the constant drip drip of water - what has been forming them for thousands of years. Constantly minding our step, we climbed up to different parts of the cave, our guide pausing every now and then to catch her breath. Ultimately, we sat atop a bamboo raft and headed down the river of the cave to climb again - and see some ancient coffins! After exploring the cave, we parted ways with our guide. We looked up: thousands of birds circled the massive entrance to the cave, then zoomed inside, quickly disappearing into the darkness for the night. We stared up in wonder, enjoying the free show before returning home for warm homemade curries.

We spent days exploring the hills around Pang Mapha on our scooter. After crowded Bangkok, it was strange (in a good way!) that we only saw two western couples the whole time. This place was certainly off the beaten path - it had true local charm that I’d never seen before - and it was incredibly special. Wearing traditional dress, locals strolled along the dirt roads, enjoying the beautiful weather.

Families of four crammed on to scooters, sometimes a child as young as ten steering the way! Families sold fruit and crafts along the roads and tropical birds sang all around us. Sometimes we followed the routes our home stay recommended, sometimes we deviated off down dirt roads that led to hidden gems. When we did, we found it supremely serene; all we heard was grass gently rustling in the wind and the tinkering of cow bells from them grazing in the distance.

No easy feat on a scooter, we bumped along, sharply ascending and descending rocky dirt roads. Our exploration took us through Karen, Lisu and Lahu villages, where simple bamboo huts were clustered between jungle clad hills. Chickens, pigs and cows roamed about in the wild, endless landscape.

Summiting a hill, we noticed a giant Buddha gleaming in the distance. Shooting through the jungle, we reached the deserted temple, too beautiful to be hidden - but perhaps that’s what made it so majestic. Descending once again into the jungle filled valleys, we cruised back to the home stay, feasting on more homemade curries and noodle dishes.

Hiring a local guide, we set off early one morning to explore 3 different caves. Armed with dry bags, bathing suits and sturdy water shoes, we climbed into the back of a pickup truck. As we wound through hilly jungle roads, I marveled at the towering limestone cliffs draped in dense canopies of green - we were seemingly being transported into some remote paradise!

Donning hard hats with headlamps, we changed into shorts, walking through a river as we crept further into the darkness. A snake greeted us at the entrance, and inside bright green frogs clung to rocks and shiny silk worms hung. Soon signs of life were absent, with the exception of black bats zipping above our heads. Gorgeous and varied formations filled the ever changing landscape inside the cave. I shined my light on walls bedazzled with crystal, marveling at the shine.

Suddenly we stopped, seemingly at a dead end. Our guide pointed to a tiny hole in the wall and told us “Hats off, bags off. We need to crawl through here.” I eyed the space skeptically. Stuffing my belongings into my dry bag, I got onto my stomach. I squeezed my body down onto the rocky floor of the cave, painfully crawling over rocks - but that was a better alternative to scraping my back against the cavern ceiling centimeters above me!

The narrow passage opened back up into a sizable room once more - but only minutes later we approached another narrow pass - this time vertical! Stripping down, we crouched low and plunged into the frigid water. We crawled and squeezed between rocks unseen under the surface, water up to our necks. I cringed thinking about what I was subjecting my cute lacy bathing suit to! Once again we emerged, thankful to be walking once more through the cave, bats sleepily hanging from the ceiling. Finally, we spotted daylight above us in the distance - we were only a steep scramble up away from lunch!

After replenishing ourselves with bags of rice and meat, we pulled on long pants and covered ourselves with bug spray - we were trekking up through thick jungle to two more caves. Machete in hand, our guide led the way, swiftly carving a path for us up the mountainside with expertise. Trying not to squeal as spiderwebs tickled my face, we climbed through bamboo, thorny vines and over giant rocks. Some points were so steep we had to dig our hands into the earth to pull ourselves up, but we were so covered in dirt already at that point it didn’t phase us! The caves yielded spectacular viewpoints, stunning formations, and more ancient coffins. Thinking we’d trek out of the jungle to the truck, our guide informed us we’d be retracing our steps back through the initial cave. After so much spelunking my energy was almost depleted - but I quickly remembered my sense of adventure! Once we’d established he wasn’t joking, we descended back into the cave, ready for more army crawls!

We headed back to Cave Lodge, the adventure bungalows that were the other accommodation option in Tham Lot. Hikers and spelunkers from around the world rested after long days of adventure, sitting around an open fire drinking, eating, and storytelling. The walls were covered with hiking maps of the area - different caves to explore, local villages and scenic hikes. We selected one to try the next day, and Adam drew a map that we could take with us. As I looked around, I was in awe that so few tourists came to this part of the country - such untouched jungle, a massive cave system to explore and stunning mountain scenery! I was thrilled we’d made the trek out to this seemingly secret paradise.

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